Topic review

Serum Albumin

Subjects: Molecular Biology View times: 56


Albumin is one of the most abundant proteins in human and other mammals. It plays a crucial role in maintaining of colloid osmotic pressure of the blood, and is able to bind and transport various endogenous and exogenous molecules. Albumin is not only the passive but also active participant of the pharmacokinetic and toxicokinetic processes possessing a number of enzymatic activities: (pseudo)esterase, paraoxonase, phosphotriesterase, thioesterase, glutathione peroxidase, cysteine peroxidase and some others. The albumin molecule contains a free thiol group within the amino acid residue Cys34, which largely determines the participation of the protein in redox reactions. This topic review contains data on the enzymatic and antioxidant properties of serum albumin; the prospects for the therapeutic application of the functional features of the protein are discussed.


Albumin is one of the most abundant proteins in human and other mammals. In humans, it is synthesised in the liver at a rate of about 0.7 mg per hour (i.e. 10-15 mg per day); the half-life of human serum albumin (HSA) is about 19-20 days[1]. The molecule of HSA is formed by one polypeptide chain, consisting of 585 amino acid residues. In albumins of other species, the length of the polypeptide chain can vary; in particular, bovine serum albumin (BSA) contains 584 amino acid residues, rat serum albumin (RSA) – 583 residues. Three homologous domains (I, II, III), consisting of two subdomains (A, B) form a three-dimensional structure of the protein, which is rather labile. The three-dimensional structure of HSA was resolved rather late, only in the 1990s[2]. A similar structure of BSA was obtained in 2012[3]. However, the three-dimensional structure of RSA has not been obtained yet. The percentage of identity of the primary structures of HSA and RSA is 73.0%, BSA and RSA – 69.9%. In the absence of crystallographic data, the three-dimensional structure of a protein can be obtained with the help of homologous modeling. Homologous models of RSA have already been constructed recently[4][5].

Previously, it was assumed that the albumin molecule had the shape of an elongated or flattened ellipsoid ("cigar" or "pill"), but X-ray analysis showed that the protein has the shape of a heart[6]. Albumin normally is not covered with hydrocarbons and can bind different endogenous and exogenous ligands: water and predominantly divalent metal cations, fatty acids, hormones, bilirubin, transferrin, nitric oxide, aspirin, warfarin, ibuprofen, phenylbutazone, etc.[7]. Ligand binding occurs at two primary sites (Sudlow sites I and II) and several secondary ones, the exact number of which is unknown. The structure of albumin is rather labile and tends towards allosteric modulation: binding of a ligand in one site can affect the efficiency of binding in another. When albumin interacts with different substances, the effects of cooperativity and allosteric modulation occurs, which is more prevalent in multimeric macromolecules[8][9]. The albumin molecule contains 17 disulfide bonds and one free thiol group in Cys34. The latter largely determines the participation of albumin in redox reactions. The number of disulfide bonds and Cys34 are conserved in all types of albumin.

Enzymatic properties

Albumin is not only the passive but also active participant of the pharmacokinetic and toxicokinetic processes. Numerous experiments showed the esterase or pseudoesterase activity of albumin against α-naphtylacetate and p-nitrophenylacetate (NPA), fatty acid esters, aspirin, ketoprofene glucuronide, cyclophosphamide, nicotinic acid esters, octanoyl ghrelin , nitroacetanilide, nitrofluoroacetanilide, and organophosphorus pesticides[10]. Acetylation is a typical example of the pseudoesterase activity of albumin (the pseudo first order reaction) when the consumption of the substrate is due to not its hydrolysis but the formation of covalent bonds with the participation of many amino acid residues (sites) of the albumin molecule. Acetylation of albumin by NPA was found to occur at 82 amino acids (aa) sites including lysine (59 aa), serine (10 aa), threonine (8 aa), tyrosine (4 aa), and aspartate (1 aa) residues[11], with adducts of acetylation at the lysine residues being more stable.

Of special interest is the phosphatase activity of albumin, i.e. the phosphomonoesterase (EC 3.1.3…?)[12], RNA-hydrolase or phosphodiesterase (EC ?)[13], and phosphotriesterase (EC and[14][15] activities. The subclass 3.1.8 (hydrolases of phosphotriesters) contains aryldialkylphosphatase (EC and diisopropylfluorophosphatase (EC [16][17]. Aryldialkylphosphatase is better known as paraoxonase; this enzyme hydrolyzes esters of tribasic phosphoric acid, of dibasic phosphonic acid, and of monobasic phosphinic acid. The feature of this enzyme is inhibition with chelating agents, because divalent cations (mainly Ca2+) are required for its activity[18]. As it was shown, albumin has all functions of paraoxonase. However, the fundamental difference of albumin is the lack of dependence on Ca2+. This fact is used for the differential analysis of the activities of these enzymes[15][19][20][21]. In toxicology, understanding the mechanistic interactions of organophosphates with albumin is a special problem, and its solution could help in the development of new types of antidotes[22].

Among the other activities of serum albumin, one should note its prostaglandin D synthase and other activities associated with prostanoid metabolism[23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30], particularly catalytic dehydration of 15-keto PGE2 in the Arg257 site with the formation of 15-keto PGA2. Quite exotic activities for albumin are glucuronidase activity (e.g., hydrolysis of S-carprofen glucuronide, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, with the participation of tyrosine and lysine residues)[31][32][33] and the enolase activity[34][35]; the significance of the latter is difficult to overestimate with respect to the differential diagnostics of benign and malignant tumors.

In 1986, concern was expressed over the fact that the current classification of esterases did not reflect the real state of things. Albumin was just used as an example of the protein which exhibits the esterase activity but has no place in the classification[36] [36]. Unfortunately, these words were not heard. The broad substrate specificity and no dependence on Ca2+ do not allow for the identification of albumin as any of the enzymes with their numbers in the enzyme nomenclature. The place of albumin in the nomenclature of enzymes remains yet to be determined.

Albumin and redox modulation

In physiological conditions, about 80% of all detected plasma thiols are albumin thiols[37]. The Cys34 residue is able to neutralise such ROS and RNS as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), peroxynitrite (ONOO-), superoxide anion and hypochlorous acid (HOCl), being oxidised to sulfenic acid (HSA-SOH)[38][39]. There is a list of the albumin activities associated with redox modulation of blood plasma and intercellular liquid. Here are the thioesterase[40][41], glutathione peroxidase and cysteine peroxidase activities, as well as the peroxidase activity towards lipid hydroperoxides[42][43][44][45]. The important role of two cysteine residues of albumin, Cys392 and Cys438 should be noted, which form redox active disulfide in the complex of albumin with palmitoyl-CoA [45]. Albumin is a trap of radicals due to six methionine residues, but Cys34 is the most important for this function[38][46]. The N-terminal region of human albumin, Asp-Ala-His-Lys, in the complex with cuprum ions has the superoxide dismutase activity[47]. Albumin can stoichiometrically inactivate hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite due to reversible oxidation of the Cys34 residue to the sulfenic acid derivative[38]. This group of activities may probably be supplemented by the cyanide detoxification reaction with the formation of thiocyanate, which is catalyzed by the regions of subdomain IIIA without the involvement of Tyr411[48]. Finally, it should be noted the prooxidant properties of albumin, which mean that the albumin-bound Cu2+ ions strengthen the formation of ascorbate radical, followed by oxidation of the formed Cu+ ions by molecular oxygen and protons again to Cu2+[49]. Albumin is usually one of the first proteins to be influenced oxidative stress, therefore its redox status is widely used as a biomarker of various pathological conditions. It is known that in chronic liver and kidney diseases, as well as in diabetes mellitus, the percentage of cysteinylated albumin (Cys34-S-S-Cys) is markedly increased[50]. In recent years, it has been shown that oxidised albumin can be a biomarker of the severity of such diseases as hyperparathyroidism[51], acute ischemic stroke[52], Parkinson's disease[53], Alzheimer disease[54], Duchenne muscular dystrophy[55], etc. Fujii et al.[56] performed a comprehensive study of 281 Japanese residents: the ratio of oxidised/reduced albumin, the thickness of the intima-media complex of the carotid arteries, and the number of plaques in the carotid arteries (the latter two indicators characterise the risk of atherosclerosis) were measured. An inverse relationship was found between the level of oxidised albumin and the risk of atherosclerosis. Violi et al. have recently shown that HSA level is independently associated with mortality in COVID-19[57]. The researchers suggested that it might be connected with antioxidant and anticoagulant properties of albumin.

In addition to the direct oxidation of Cys34, albumin can undergo other chemical modifications that affect its structure and conformation, which in turn can lead to modulation of its antioxidant properties. Glycation is one of these modifications, which is the covalent binding of glucose or another monosaccharide to the side chains of lysines and arginines[58]. To date, more than 60 albumin glycation sites have been described, but many researchers agree that Lys525 is the most reactive of them[59][60][61]. Modifications caused by glycation have an important effect on the functional properties of albumin, mainly associated with the changes of its conformation. As in the case of the effect of Cys34 oxidation on the binding activity of Sudlow sites, the data on the effect of glycation on the antioxidant properties of albumin are contradictory: in some cases, the antioxidant properties are weakened, while in others, on the contrary, they are enhanced[62][63][64][65]. The review of Rondeau and Bourdon[58] provides a detailed analysis of the results of various experiments aimed at studying this effect. The authors suggest that the controversial behavior of glycosylated albumin in biochemical experiments might be due to interspecies differences, the nature and concentration of the involved carbohydrates (glucose, methylglyoxal), and the conditions of incubation with monosaccharides. The differences between human and bovine albumin described in the review are of particular interest: glycation of HSA sharply decreases its antioxidant activity, while glycation of BSA tends to enhance its antioxidant properties. These data correlate with the results of computational experiments aimed at studying the effect of the redox status of HSA and BSA on their binding and esterase activity towards paraoxon[66][67]. According to the data, human and bovine albumins react differently to the oxidation of Cys34 to sulfenic and sulfinic acids.

Fatty acids (FAs) appear to play the main role in the regulation of the antioxidant properties of albumin. For the first time, this conclusion was made by Gryzunov and co-authors[49][68]. Binding of FAs changed the conformations of Sudlow sites I and II and increased the fluorescence quantum yield of the probes dansylamide (ligand of Sudlow site I) and dansylsarcosine (ligand of Sudlow site II); also, FAs strenthened the reactivity of Cys34 thiol group towards 5,5'-dithiobis-2-nitrobenzoic acid (DTNB) having increased its steric availability. The authors hypothesised that FAs, when bound to albumin, simultaneously regulated it’s both transport and antioxidant functions, serving as a necessary intermediary between these activities[49]. Roche et al.[38] discuss the ability of albumin to bind polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and bilirubin, and thus indirectly further enhance the antioxidant defense of the body. It is known that albumin-bound bilirubin can inhibit lipid peroxidation. Bilirubin binds at Site III of albumin [69]. As for PUFAs, according to the authors, it is possible that in combination with albumin, they are protected from peroxidation. The amino acids Arg117, Lys351, and Lys475 are responsible for the interaction of the protein with PUFA molecules

Therapeutic application of albumin

Attempts are being made to use albumin not only as an informant about the condition of patients, but also as a therapeutic agent. An interesting application of the redox properties of albumin was proposed by Japanese scientists[70]. It is known that reactive sulfur species (RSS) are able to neutralise ultraviolet radiation products (for example, ROS and NO) that promote melanin synthesis. However, the instability of RSS limits their use as inhibitors of melanin synthesis. The authors proposed a method for using albumin as the RSS delivery system. It was shown that thiolated albumin (obtained by the incubation of albumin and sodium polysulfide) significantly inhibited melanin synthesis in B16 melanoma cells. The researchers also suggested that albumin modified in such way could be used in cosmetology to whiten the skin. In the research of Schneider et al. [71], the possibility of using human albumin solution to protect patients of an intensive care unit (ICU) from bacterial infections was studied. The polypeptide vasostatin-1 is known to have antimicrobial properties and play a key role in protecting the body from gram-positive bacteria. However, the oxidised form of vasostatin loses its antibacterial properties. Oxidative processes are often developed in ICU patients, which means that they are more at risk of infection. The study showed that continuous infusion of 4% albumin reduced the risk of nosocomial infections. By mixing albumin with oxidised vasostatin-1 and using a high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method, the authors demonstrated that albumin reduced the oxidised form of vasostatin, thereby increasing its antibacterial properties.

The entry is from 10.3390/antiox9100966


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